Posts Tagged ‘life lessons’

Make New Mistakes

November 8, 2017

IMG_1979

We all strive for joy in our lives.  Just look around at the family pictures on your wall, or scan through all those selfies on your phone.  How many of those captured moments are of you toiling away at your desk, or the moment you heard that a loved one had passed?  We strive for happiness, and bathe ourselves in those captured moments to help us through a now where the next smile, laugh, or hug is never guaranteed.

That so very human craving is highlighted to an almost unfair degree in the game of baseball.  For no other sport celebrates failure in the same way.  Hitting a pitched baseball is, to my mind, the most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  And throwing a baseball is an unnatural act by nature.  It is a start-and-stop sport that demands an attention to detail in the midst of moments where nothing appears to be happening.  Failure is the norm.  So those slivers of success have to be savored…and measured.

As a coach, one thing I strive for is a “relentless positivity.”  This is something that I really attempted to focus on this fall.  For the first since a one-off T-ball stint a few years ago, I coached a team that didn’t have one of my sons on it.  I had helped my nephew’s spring team a few times, and was invited by their coach to take the helm in the fall.  And while I adore my nephew, it is definitely a different experience, and set of expectations, being a coach without a kid.

I know that to many on the other side of the field, my “exuberance” makes me look like a loud-mouth (and I know some parents on my side feel the same way).  But, as I’ve told them, “My coaching goes to 11.  It’s the only gear I’ve got.”  But even with all my antics, I will admit that coaching house ball can, sometimes, be an exercise in frustration.  It was important for me to find the right mindset for this group of kids, and not simply try to make the kids comport to my coaching style.  That can be tough when you have kids who are playing at a travel level on the same field with those that are still afraid of the ball.

One of my players, for example, was a fantastic kid.  Bright-eyed and soaking knowledge like a sponge.  He came to all the preseason catchers’ clinics he could and really understood what it meant to “receive” the ball rather than simple catch it.

But when he was at the plate rather than behind it, it was a painful thing to behold.  His style was to try and hit a pitched ball as if it were sitting on a tee.  He waited until the ball arrived at the plate, and attempted to step-and-swing at a ball that had already vanished behind him.  In working with him off the tee, in the cages, and in BP, it was a habit he simply couldn’t break.

He was clearly demoralized, and I was, for a time, at a loss to find what might work to make him happy in the midst of consistent failure.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t one of those smiles that surrounded me, or that championship trophy hanging over my desk that came to my rescue.  Instead, the synapse that decided to fire came from a place of profound sadness.

I was young—definitely still single digits, and with my father in New York.  The divorce was still fresh to him, and he became wistful upon my request to listen to the Beatles.  “I haven’t put this on since your mother and I broke up,” he said with a deep sigh.

As we listened, he was clearly caught in the inverse effect of the happy memory; those that bring you to a moment that proffers not the hope of happiness to come, but at happiness never to come again.

“Scotty, let me tell you something, he said with his trademark professorial tone.  “As you go through life, look at the people around you, and try to do one thing.  Make different mistakes than they did.”

He went on at some length after (I did mention he is a professor, right?), but it was that line – make different mistakes – that always stuck with me.  And when that synapse fired, I knew immediately what to do with my young, struggling, hitter.

The next time I was throwing batting practice, I gave him a new set of instructions.

“Right now you are late on the ball every time.  It’s no fun making the same mistake over and over.  So let’s make a new mistake together.  The next time I pitch, I want you to be way, way early.  Swing before the ball even comes close to home.”

He nodded, I threw, he swung late.

“Were you late or early?” I asked.

“Late,” he replied instantly.

“Great.  So you know what that feels like!  Now make a different mistake.”

I hurled again, and he started swinging almost as the ball left my hand.

“Late or early?”

He hesitated.

“Early?”

“YES!  Way early, way to go!”

He smiled.

“Now that you’ve made a new mistake, our job is to find the middle.  If you keep working, you’ll be able to do that.”

He nodded, we bumped fists, and he dashed out to the field to help shag for the next hitter, clearly proud of his swing-and-miss.

While my Federals’ mantra was, “Win Every Inning” much like my teams in the past, and we chanted, “Fun, Focus, Fire!” to begin each game, I found myself returning to, “Make New Mistakes” as a focal point this season.  In one game, my catcher threw down to third base with two outs, two strikes, and the winning run coming in to third base on a steal.  Twice before we had thrown down to third, to notice that our third baseman that inning was simply having trouble catching the ball.  Of course, the throw sailed into left and the winning run scored.

He was beating himself up after the game, but I told him, “The throws down weren’t bad, but baseball isn’t just about throwing and hitting, it’s about thinking.  A good team player knows who is on the field, and tries not to repeat mistakes.  Now you know, so go make a new mistake next time.”

Next game, new third baseman, he was a little hesitant to throw.  “Hey, way to be thinking it through,” I yelled from the bench.  That was the right mistake to make.  But now you can go for it.”  Next play, he threw out his first baserunner trying to steal.

Whether it was helping getting pitchers out of a rut, getting fielders to focus on catching before throwing by complementing them on the play even if the batter was safe, to watching teammates give the batter a high-five as he came to the bench after the right kind of swing-and-miss, this group of boys got better as individuals and as players because rather than telling them to, “just have fun,” – one of my most loathed phrases.  Failing the same way over-and-over is not fun, no matter how hard your parents cheer for you.  Instead, I was able to get them to find ways to turn failure into success, and feel like they were getting better.

It wasn’t always perfect.  Baseball, like life, never is.  But finding satisfaction in the process, even if the result doesn’t immediately say “success” not only helped my kids improve, I think it really helped reframe my own coaching mindset.  For not only did it give me more avenues to be positive, it also give me a new way to remind them if they were slipping back into old habits.

Wisdom is a strange thing.  It doesn’t always come from where you expect.  But if you open yourself up and look to find the best in each player, even the sad moments can have the grain of future happiness.  So go out and try making some new mistakes yourself, and give your kids room to do the same.

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House Rules

September 29, 2015
Just happy they chose soccer...

Just happy they chose soccer…

While I was recently interviewed in Arlington Magazine for an article on the ups-and-downs of travel sports, my feeling is that some of the greatest lessons for kids of any talent level can come from being a part of a house team.

Indeed, it is why I find it a shame when parents of elite-level youth players tap their fingers and roll their eyes during the house ball season, impatiently awaiting the end of league play so their child can go play “real baseball.”  Some go a step farther, pulling their kids out of league ball and shelling out the big bucks to go exclusively with club teams all year long.

What the “club kids” miss out on is truly precious.  For in hockey, basketball, soccer, and even football, one star can dominate the show.  But particularly due to the pitching restrictions put on teams in league ball, the big fish is still small compared to the whole pond.

There is no “rover” or “center” that can patrol the whole field.  There is no opportunity to take the shot every time.  It’s the kid with the runny nose and thick glasses—the kid who dreams just like the jock of someday feeling the soft rustle of major league grass underfoot—that may have the ball hit to him (or her) in that crucial moment.

“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.” — From Arlington Magazine.  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.  Oh, wait…

Indeed, in what was unquestionably my Aces’—the “B” travel team I coach—best game of the season, I had the opportunity to actually show some strategic smarts (not my specialty area, admittedly) and prove that very thing.

Two years ago, my big fella’s B Team, the Arlington Cardinals, headed to a great little tournament up in Frederick and upset the host team in the first round.  We were probably about evenly matched, save the coach’s son, who was an absolute monster.  That was a huge day for my own fella, as he both started, and much to the protest of the players on Frederick, came back in the game to get his own save.  I remember it well because my wife almost had a heart attack when we brought him back in.

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

Flash forward to this summer, and my Aces are playing a Frederick team much the same, this time with a kid we called “Fish” because his last name was some type of gilled animal, though precisely which one now eludes me.  This young man looked like he could swallow my skinny fella whole, and yet was faster than anyone on my team.  I was told by one of my players that he was a friendly sort, coming up to our dugout during our 2nd round game and saying, “Hi, I’m [Fish].  I’m the best player on my team.”

And, of course, the most humble.

Come the semi-final, we were locked in a 1-1 game in the 3rd, and my pitcher who was dealing but clearly running out of steam had just induced a groundout with runners at 1st and 2nd got get that second out.  Now, with two runners in scoring position, the big Fish swam to the plate, his shadow encompassing the entirety of the left-handed batter’s box.

I looked out to my guy, a wiry young thing named Tony, and you could see the look in his eye.  I call him “La Tigre” not just for the Frosted Flakes connotation, but because he’s a kid who loves a challenge.  But you could tell that he was running on fumes, and Fish was ready to reel him in.

I sat there on my bucket, wondering what pitch to call that might do the least damage, then something in the recesses of my brain crammed somewhere between Tickle Monster Base Races and Fuzzy Flies from Outer Space decided to spark.

“Tony, step off!” I yelled to my hurler.  He looked at me blankly, finally complying on my third request.  I called time, and jogged to the edge of the backstop where the tournament officials were scoring the game, and huddled with them and the umpire.

“What are the rules on intentional walks?” I asked.  “Do I need to throw four balls, or can I just put him on?”

The tournament orchestrator seemed taken aback a bit by the question.  “Well, uh, whatever the rules say…”

“I believe we’re playing by Cal Ripken rules,” I quickly interjected, given that was something I actually knew.  “At this level, I can just put him on.”

“He’s right,” the umpire said.  “That’s the standard 46/60 rule.”

“Allright then, do what you want,” said the official with a courtesy masking just a hint of frustration.

“Okay big fella, head on over to first,” I said, giving the umpire the point of the finger.  “That’s my tip of the cap to you.”

We were all grinning after the big win.

We were all grinning after the big win.

The grin on La Tigre’s face stretched like the Cheshire Cat.  He nodded, and it was like I had gone to the mound and given him a B-12 shot.  Fish was on first just long enough to watch Tony strike the next batter out on 3 pitches.  We ended up winning that game 3-2 in 8 crazy innings (inclusive of the boys spontaneously starting to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in our 7th inning huddle, an amazing memory in itself).  It was perhaps the best youth game I’ve ever been a part of, win or lose.

And that’s it.  No matter how good you are, baseball is designed to be a truly team game, by being a definitively individual one.  That’s what makes it such a great teaching tool.

That, “It’s not always about you” life lesson, and the feeling of self-enlightened empathy is even more heightened in house baseball, when you have travel-quality players mixed with those who struggle just to put the ball in play.

For while the “Fish” moment was fantastic, to me, and even more cinema-worthy scene came in our final spring house league game, a consolation affair after a tough, rain-shortened playoff loss.

My Blue Wahoos were locked in a good battle with the Hot Rods, one of the better teams in the league who also got upset in the first round.  We had lost to them earlier in the season in a game where we were defeated before we played, as the chatter of “they have five travel players on their team!” got squarely into my kids’ heads.

In the rematch, we were playing our game, and we were winning.  A tight contest was coming down to the Hot Rods final at bat.  And the game would come down to a kid we called, “Mr. Clutch.”

Yep, felt just like that.

Yep, felt just like that.

This little second-sacker, younger than most, smaller than most, loves baseball with an undying passion.  He earned his moniker by being able to tap the occasional grounder at the big moment and running it out for a hit, and I got all Mr. Miyagi-like when earlier in the season he lined one up the middle off a pitcher on the 9u “A” travel team.  “You just got a hit off a Storm pitcher!” I said after the inning.  “How does that feel?” I asked as he beamed.

On the defensive side, M.C. worked his keester off to make himself a solid defensive player.  But popups were still his bug-a-boo.  Indeed his Dad told me during the season that Clutch would demand they go into the yard and do nothing but practice popups, dropping them time-and-time again.

In that moment—two outs and the tying run on base—a high pop fly floated over his head.  No one else had even a remote shot at the ball—it was his or it wasn’t.  And in that moment, every Wahoo was invested in him and him alone; knowing that the smallest guy on the team was the only one who could come up big.

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team.  His Dad says even in a different uniform, he's still doing things the "Wahoo Way."

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team. His Dad says even in a different uniform, he’s still doing things the “Wahoo Way.”

Had anyone else made that play, it would have been sweet, but the explosion of joy that erupted from the entire team when that ball rattled and stuck in Mr. Clutch’s glove turned that memory into something so much more than that both for him, and for us.  Indeed, both the Hot Rods and Wahoos among my Aces, and they still talk about that catch.

Now I do understand the pull of high-level competitive youth baseball.  Talented players should have the opportunity of playing with and against other talented players to help them learn to play at a higher level.  My concern is, however, that Club Teams are the pricey siren song that allows talented players to shed core experiences that make baseball something bigger than the game itself.

So if you have a talented kid who is simply just better than the rest, think twice before pulling the plug on house ball.  I’ll also add that it’s equally important to disabuse those kids of the notion that house league play is just practice until “real” baseball starts in the summer.  Kids who do this disrespect the importance and efforts of those kids whose only season is the house season might are missing out on what the game is really all about.

So to all you are-or-would-be travel parents, do remember that your young star isn’t likely on a path to the big leagues.  It is the memories he makes and the lessons she takes from “Mr. Clutch” moments may well be more important in the long run than anything that happens in that summer travel tournament.

Is Competing Bad for Kids?

February 13, 2014
Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

“Coach, we have a crier!”

The voice rang out from Tommy, my first-grader, and it wasn’t the first time.  Over the first three weeks of my first ever CoachN’s FUNdamentals class, this same little boy had made the same call each week as his Kindergarten teammate had become teary-eyed.

In my rush to make sure that the class continued, the first two times it happened, I zipped right past Tommy and right to Kyle, seeking out the source of the problem.  “Are you hurt, big man?” I asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.   A sleeve swept at the wet on his face, more successfully smearing rather than cleaning.  A simple shake of the head indicated that despite his frustration, he really, really wanted to play.

On the third occasion when we divided up into 3 teams for our Gorabigator fielding competition, Tommy once again unleashed his clarion call.  This time, however, I thought ahead.  Before talking with Kyle, I went to a knee, put my hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder, and said,

It's all about being a teammate.  I'll explain the Thor hat later.

It’s all about being a teammate. I’ll explain the Thor hat later.

“Tommy, what’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?”  His big brown eyes lit with the recognition that, perhaps, I wasn’t going to give him an approving pat on the back.

“Uh, being a…uh…team…sport,” he mumbled.  Close enough to run with.

“That guy over there wearing the same hat as you?  That’s Kyle.  Remember that he has a name, and it’s not Crier.”

I knew I had his attention, but I also knew I’d have it for about 10 seconds more—and that was all I could spare to make sure I kept the drills from lapsing into chaos.  “So while I know you’re just trying to help me, do you really think that’s respecting and supporting your teammate?”  Tommy shook his head slightly but definitively.  Point made.

Kyle was, of course, watching this from the wings.  I decided not to say anything to him at that moment other than, “Kyle, let’s go—glove to the ground.”  He slurped, sniffled, and fielded a grounder cleanly.

After the drill it was time for water break.  And I caught a break, as I had hoped that in coming to his defense, Kyle would open up a bit.  He came up to me and said, “Coach, do we have to do another game today?”

The question was a curious one to me, as I’ve found one of the key ways to keep kids interested in doing drills was to make the drills into competitions.  By splitting the kids up into two or sometimes three teams, I was able to keep them in the action while providing an incentive for the players to cheer for their teammates.  That’s what all the coaching books told me, and for years it’s been the perfect recipe.

So what gives?

“Why don’t you want another game, Kyle?”  I asked, seeing tears starting to well up once again.  He bravely kept his emotions from overwhelming him, and croaked, “I just don’t want to lose!” I responded with my standard line born from a million competitions-induced tears before:  that competition wasn’t about winning and losing, but striving to get better.  He reluctantly accepted my sage wisdom, and went onto be one of my biggest hitters of the day.  As we gave out star stickers for our hats, I have Kyle a big gold star for “comeback player of the day.”

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Problem solved, right?  Coach Scott’s great!  Give us the chocolate cake! And so forth.

But the next day, I was walking home from school drop-off with Kyle’s mother Yvonne.  “I heard that Kyle started slowly but finished strong yesterday,” she said.  I noted that I found out that Kyle was worried about losing, and talked to him about why we compete.  She sighed in that most parent-like of ways, and responded that Kyle was like this with anything that was competition oriented.  He was afraid to watch his favorite team play baseketball because he couldn’t handle seeing them lose.  He was always worried about his school work being all right because if it wasn’t, he felt like he had failed.  He even said, despite his obvious passion for baseball, that he didn’t want to play on a team because he was afraid his team might lose.

I empathized with Yvonne, my boys having had plenty of on-field meltdowns themselves over the years.  But when she was talking about Kyle, I flashed back to the competitions we were having over the past few weeks.  “What’s the score?” the kids would beg me over-and-over again.  But, no, most of the time, it was actually different than that.  It was “how much does the other team have?”  While that worry was more pronounced with Kyle, it was clearly present with all of the kids.  They were so preoccupied with what the other team was doing, so focused not on winning, but not losing,  that it took away from the team-building that I told all these kids’ parents was at the core of what I was trying to teach.

This wasn’t Kyle’s problem.  This wasn’t Tommy’s problem.  This wasn’t any of the kids’ problem.

It was mine.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game?  I have, too.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game? I have, too.

To put it in conflict partnership terms, the competitions I created became almost entirely power over focused, a “win-lose” scenario that split the kids apart rather than bringing them together.  And I realized that when kids get a little older, as I’m a bit more accustomed to with my boys being 9 and 12, they can more easily separate friendly competition with teammates from “do-or-die.” But for younger children just emerging from the cocoon of constant parental validation where first steps and first poops in the potty are fêted with World Series glee , they are really just starting to learn what competition actually is, that’s a hard distinction to make.

So, how to fix something like this?  Make sure every competition ends in a tie?  That doesn’t really take away the in-game issue, as they don’t know the game is rigged.  Remove competition entirely and go with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy?  I have to say that irks me as a coach.  Competition does test players, and helps them to get better.  It does teach essential cooperation and team-building lessons that help build better ballplayers, and people.  And it is simply more fun, as it brings urgency and goals to the table.  And, yes, it is a part of life kids need to learn how to deal with.

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills.  Safety first!

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills. Safety first!

The next week, I donned the Thor helmet borrowed from my son’s Halloween costume and began our “Hit Like a Hero” lesson.  As I did the week before, I broke the kids up into two groups, and gave them the arcane scoring system for mechanics and result.  I looked at Kyle, and could see the nerves already building up in his intense, earnest face.

“This week, we’re doing things differently,” I said.  These two groups are still one team.  Your goal is to get to get to 200 points.  If you do that together, everyone gets a star!”

I could see it on Kyle.  I could see it on Tommy.  I could see it on everyone.  There was no one in the room that could beat them.  Either they would win the game, or not.  They’d work hard, but not have to worry that anyone else in the room was better.  This was still competition, but it was a power with rather than power over exercise.

“Ready to play?”

“YEAH!” they bellowed.

The dynamic of the competition could not have been more different, even though the words were the same.  “How many do we have?” they queried constantly.  Then they’d run back to the other group to see how many they had.  As they approached the 200 point mark, the kids were screaming their support for each other.  And when the barrier was broken, it was a giant hurrah and high-fives all around.

That night, I got an email from Yvonne.  Kyle had decided that he wanted to supplement the team hats that I gave all the players with home-made jerseys because, she said, “it was something to show that he was a good teammate.”

The new uniforms weren’t quite done by our last session (I can’t wait to see them, but I’ll have to wait another week because of this darned snow) where we started using our “Green Arrow Throws” to start working on improving accuracy.  When I again broke up into two groups for a game, Kyle immediately came up and said, “Is this another points one where we’re together?”

“Absolutely, Kyle.  You’re working as a team.”

“Awesome!” he said, pumping his fist, “I love those!”

So do I Kyle.  So do I.

It is designed to break your heart

August 2, 2013

Barcroft Park

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

15-3.

That’s how badly the DC Dynasty had whipped us Arlington Cardinals in the wee morning hours.  It happed just the day before, in what now has been coined “The Great Hangover Game of 2013.”  You see, our young B-teamers, 11 and 12-year-olds all, had bounced back after getting thrashed by the Arlington A Team–the Storm–in the first game of this, our last tournament of the season, to actually win the next game by mercy rule.  The ecstasy of that 11-1 win, a game that started at 8pm, kept most of our kids up past midnight that night.

And any parent can tell you that a pre-teen with a bad night’s sleep is a truly gruesome sight to behold.  As our boys staggered onto the field for an 8am start, they looked more like they’d be hunting for brains than baseballs.

15-3.

And yet, here we stood the next day in the semifinals against that very same Dynasty, headed out to the field for the bottom of the 6th and possibly final inning of our season, and the story was a very different one.

7-7.

Once again, we had gotten down early, but this time we had our top pitchers on the mound, and our ace contained the damage and, with solid defense, we were down only 4-0 going into the top of the 4th.

Raj, our #2 hitter, led off the inning and worked a nice walk to get us started, and my big fella Gus followed with a booming double to right centerfield, our first well struck ball of the game and a capper for his breakout offensive season where he batted .533.  And even though Gus eventually got thrown out at home, our guys still carried that momentum forward doing what we worked on all season: working the pitch counts, laying-off the high heat, and focusing on putting the ball in play.  By the time the inning had ended, it was more than a brand new game.

5-4.

When we trotted out to try and defend that slimmest of leads, it would be my guy on the bump.  Gus was our #2, but had really developed into a solid pitcher in his own right.  After giving up a leadoff double to their best hitter, Gus managed to do what the Dynasty could not.  He worked around an error, an infield hit, and a walk.  Walking the tightrope as he had done all season, he managed to escape the 4th with only one run scored.  The bottom of our order was then no match for their pitcher, however, and we found ourselves out there again deadlocked in the bottom of the 5th.

5-5.

Gus again worked his best through a batting order far deeper than ours.  He gave up a bloop single which in our league is essentially an automatic double as with leads and 70 foot basepaths, it is the rare day when a runner gets caught trying to steal.  They played a fundamentally sound game and bunted the runner over to 3rd.  Now our entire season was dancing up the baseline, attempting to induce a wild pitch.

And, of course, up once again stepped their big fella, whom our parents had nicknamed, “The 30-Year-Old.”  He had burned us the day before with a home run that sealed our mercy-rule fate.  He already had two doubles on the day.  And puberty seemed to be rushing upon him so quickly that I swear you could see his stubble growing as he waved his bat menacingly in the batter’s box.  As I viewed the matchup, I could only think of one possible solution:

Surrender.

“Step off, Gus, step off!” I yelled, remembering a point in an earlier tournament that season when I wasn’t vocal enough in calling time out and it cost us (that’s a story for another day, but it’s a good story).  He complied, though glaring at me in that, “Dad, you’re the assistant coach, you know,” kind of way.  I turned to Danny and pled, “Walk him.  Let’s walk him.  Let’s intentionally walk him!”

Hey now.  Don’t give me that look.  It made perfect baseball sense.  Mr. 30 was the guy who has beaten us all weekend long.  There were two outs, and the most important run was at 3rd.  I was simply trying to apply a sound strategy to a big moment—perhaps with just a small touch of, “My boy has had such a great season, please-please-please don’t make him pitch to this brute!”

Danny called time and trotted out to the mound to chat with Gus.  I immediately ran to the ump to see if we could simply declare a walk rather than throwing four intentional balls, something that you are usually allowed to do at this level.  But when Danny returned, he simply said, “No walk.  Gus wants to pitch to him.”  Abject terror and immense pride washed through my body in what, though I hope to never validate, is what I would expect a small heart attack feels like.  My son toed the rubber, and let the first pitch fly.

He attacked high in the zone, and got Mr. 30 to take the bait.  Swing-and-a-miss—strike one.  A ball outside to even the count, then a low called strike on the outside corner to get him way up.  All season long, we had worked on varying location.  None of our pitchers, even our best ones, had “swing and miss” stuff.  So location and changing speed were our bread-and-butter to compete.  Now, it was time to execute.

“Climbtheladderclimbtheladderclimbtheladder,” I muttered over and over, hoping that our catcher Harry would make the right call.  I saw him come ever so slightly out of his crouch.  Yes!  Yes!! Do it!!!  Gus fired the ball right at chest level, and—PLINK—the ball went sky-high right to the left side, a towering fly to the infield.  Gus had done it!  He beat the behemoth!

As the ball sailed in the air, its hue shifted from a dirt-smudged white to neon green.  For in my mind’s eye, that ball became one of the hundreds of popups Coach Mark and I had swatted at our fielders with a tennis racket in what we called the “Sky High” drill.  It was the perfect way to safely whip soaring popups in the air so our fielders would know where to be and how to communicate.  It was one of those perfect coaching moments: a huge situation where you prepared these very players for this very thing.

But when both the 3rd baseman and Shortstop took two staggering, silent steps backwards, confidence turned to prayer.

A teeter.  A waiver.  A desperate lunge.

A ball making, quick, popcorn-like bounds as it landed safely in the short-outfield grass.

6-5.

Then our crimson uniforms were suddenly replaced with jerseys marked “Chico’s Bail Bonds.” A rage-fueled throw back into the infield careened past the 2nd baseman, allowing the runner to take 2nd.  And the only reason he didn’t get to 3rd is that the equally ill-advised throw back in managed to find the 2nd baseman’s shin, as he wasn’t even looking when the throw came bounding through.  After a ground ball single scored the next run, you could feel it all getting away.  But Gus, much to his credit, settled down and struck out the next hitter, giving us a small gasp of life in our season.

7-5.

Now, if you are skeptical of baseball gods ruling the fate of we mere mortals on the diamond, the top of the 6th should make you a true believer.  For we stood there with two outs, our season saved by the juggle of a catch in what would have been a game ending double play.  Tyler, the boy who had lunged at that fateful fly, came up to the plate.  Ty had been mired in a slump and was moved down in the order, and was not having a great day at the plate.  He got down early in the count, but each time the final pitch seemed destined to find leather, a small sliver of aluminum got in its way.  He fought back to fill the count, and, after a 10-pitch at bat, worked the walk.

Bases loaded, two outs.

Okay, sure, that’s a huge moment, but not the magic you were expecting?  Well Tyler’s walk brought the at bat a full year in the making.  For at this very tournament last year, in this very same semifinal game, in this very 6th inning, up stepped Jack, our centerfielder, who has been playing for me since 2nd grade.  In that moment, he lined a ball to Left that seemed ticketed for a game winning double, only to have the ball picked off by the fielder that the other team’s coach admitted was, “the kid we hide because he can’t catch.”

The statistical implausibility of this at bat happening again a year apart was enough to make me believe in the Easter Bunny (and I’m Jewish).  As he approached the plate, I could feel his apprehension as his chest filled and sagged.  Rustling up what little emotional control I could muster, I managed a smile and said, “Jack baby, you know you can do this because you’ve done it!  This time, just find a hole!”  Maybe it was just me, but Jacked seemed a bit heartened—and a lot determined—when he stepped over the eroded chalk line.

I saw him in his wide-open, left-handed stance, something we changed together to get him diving toward the ball so he could cover the outside corner.  And when that outside fastball came, JC was ready to roll.  CRACK.  A screaming grounder to the left of the 3rd baseman.  He had a shot at it, but it was too hot to handle and crawled up his arm and into left field.  Even with 2 outs, however, there wasn’t enough time to get that tying run in as the outfielder was playing too shallow.

7-6.

But, on the very next pitch, with our last-place hitter at the plate, the pitcher uncorked a wild one, and our runner dashed in safely.  I had to chide Jack who rather than running down to 2nd base decided to strut and clap his way to the bag.  “Get to the bag, then strut, big guy!” I yelled.  He grinned and nodded.

After a well-earned walk loaded the bases again, our leadoff hitter rapped a ball on a line, but right at the 2nd baseman.  No lead, but a mini-miracle for all concerned.

7-7.

And so Gus, our middle of the order hitter, the guy who had pitched more innings than anyone else—my son—was asked to go out one more time to save our season.

He didn’t have quite as much pop on his fastball, but was still locating well.  He got ahead of the leadoff hitter, and induced a weak fly ball to right.  But the yips got the best of our right fielder, despite the pre-game instructions for outfielders to “run in and dive for any close ball” he pulled up and allowed the popup to drop.  A quick steal of second, and trouble was once again looming.

As they did the last time, the Dynasty looked to bunt their runner over.  But this time, Gus was ready, and kept the ball up high-and-away twice inducing two foul pops to get ahead 0-2.  We needed the K desperately, and he loaded up to go low-and-in.  But the ball stayed up, and ran right over the middle of the plate.

And there was a sound of thunder.

A walkoff.  A walkoff home run, no less.

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

As we lined up and awaited the conclusion of the Dynasty’s home plate dogpile, I noted that our boys were surprisingly chipper, save one devastated blond fella.  I realized then that Gus had in the most sincere sense taken one for the team.  All the mistakes were washed away, because we had come back from them.  Even the missed fly ball to open the inning didn’t matter, because the home run made it irrelevant.  It’s not that they wanted it to be Gus’s fault.  But a piece of each and every one of them were relieved that it wasn’t their fault.  They were proud—rightfully proud—of their hard work and their fight and, even in a loss, felt that this B team put in an A effort both today, and throughout the season.

But, as the boys settled in for post-season cake and pizza, it was my boy with his back turned at the next table, shoulders hunched from the piano that fell on his shoulders.  All the coaches, this one included, took their turn at cheering him up to no avail.  Even one of the coaches of the Storm came over to tell him how well he played.  That bucked Gus up a bit, but the moment, the brutal finality of it, was an anchor no adult could pry free.

But someone could.

“Hey Gus!  Don’t be so down.  You actually did us a favor, as I didn’t want to get our butts kicked by the Storm again anyway!” said our #1 pitcher, patting him on the back.  “Yeah!” agreed Raj, “Who the heck needed that?”  A small grin, a seed of the joy that season had been until that very moment, fought its way through the heartbreak of the moment and broke through the gloom.  A hand reached for a slice of pizza.  And, not 10 minutes later, Gus sat on a see-saw doing his darndest to knock Tyler off as he in the glorious stupidity of youth attempted to balance in the middle.

The next evening, Gus was having dinner and as he wolfed down his 7th taco, casually told his Mom, “I’m ready for baseball to start again.”  “Gus, it’s only been a day,” Kirsten replied, incredulously.

“Really?  It feels like it’s been 10 years.”

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind